For more than three decades, the public has been presented with the recurring spectacle of the federal government proposing drilling for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean, and governments from Virginia north and most of their residents opposing and stopping the same.
The cycle has become more farcical over time, particularly now that the dramatic increase in U.S. domestic oil and gas production has rendered unprofitable deepwater drilling in the mid- to northern Atlantic — even if there were significant reserves there, which looks unlikely.
Back in the Jimmy Carter administration, exploratory wells actually were drilled off South Jersey for several years. It was a failure, with just five of the wells yielding hydrocarbons and none in sufficient quantity to make extraction worthwhile. And that was during the OPEC oil crisis and gasoline rationing.
Nonetheless, the federal government has repeatedly proposed selling leases to oil and gas companies to drill in the Atlantic. The Barack Obama administration held an information session for lease bidders in Atlantic City in 2015. That effort also went nowhere.
Now the U.S. is the world’s leading oil and gas producer, and prices are so low they are punishing even energy companies that have low cost wells on land. Yet, right on cue, the Donald Trump administration is pushing to lease drilling sites in the Atlantic.
As usual, there is widespread bipartisan political opposition and from environmental organizations. Offshore drilling must be the easiest target there is, especially now with the price of oil, gasoline and natural gas very low. This month 93 members of Congress announced their opposition to the seismic testing that would try to determine where on the ocean floor, if anywhere, the geology seems promising for oil and gas reserves.
This is all well and good in that it adds extra insurance that offshore drilling won’t happen this time, just like nearly every other time. But considering the unified bipartisan opposition of governments and congressional representatives from Virginia north and the power that represents, a more permanent protection of the MidAtlantic from drilling would be a more worthy goal.
The timing is perfect for a designation of most of the Atlantic along the East Coast as a resource extraction zone of last resort. The Interior Department already has signaled it’s willing to consider scaling back potential lease areas after consulting with governors. The oil industry’s interest remains in the Gulf of Mexico and possibly in the Atlantic off Florida and Georgia. Note that those two East Coast states are absent from a lawsuit by nine others, including New Jersey, to stop the seismic testing.
If politicians and environmental groups really want to protect East Coast beaches and marine life from the energy industry, now is the time to establish restrictive conditions on future access by industry — when there is no significant interest and the economics of it look poor into the distant future.
They should consider pursuing that goal and trying to convince the southernmost states that the risk to their precious ocean beaches isn’t worth whatever benefits the industry and federal government are promising.